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Fictions and simulations: The case for idealism

Fictions and simulations: The case for idealism

Reading | Philosophy | 2022-05-22

Brain mind spiritual soul freedom and hope concept art, 3d illustration, surreal mystery artwork, imagination painting, conceptual idea of success

A new, creative and compelling argument—even a new type of argument—for idealism is elaborated upon in this long-form essay, which is fluid and easy to read.

The matter with matter

I was brought up in a universe that, according to the metaphysical paradigm I was unconsciously spoon-fed, is nothing more than a collection of things: “matter” for short, although it also includes space, time, physical fields, etc.

The assumption is that matter is devoid of qualities such as value, beauty, meaning, etc. The qualitative aspects of reality are dismissed as being either an illusion, or an emergent placeholder to refer to very complicated physical patterns, just as a planet’s center of gravity is a placeholder for the entire planet when describing its orbit.

The gist of it is, as Steven Weinberg perfectly said: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”1

However, careful observation of any human culture that has ever existed reveals that our deepest intuitions and our behaviors clash with such a paradigm, even in our current materialist environment.2 As a matter of fact, even if materialists preach the gospel of a pointless world and may even adhere intellectually to such an idea, they still act as if their lives have meaning.3

Yuval Noah Harari4 would contest that human culture is just a bunch of fictions, many of which are extremely ugly, and that we would be better off if we left all such stories behind, especially those that aim to give their believers a sense of meaning. Yet one could argue that the portrayal of fictions as pointless, truthless brain viruses obeying meme mechanics is, in itself, a stupendous piece of fiction. Perhaps the cure for ugly fiction is not no-fiction, but better fiction.

This is, I must admit, a hard sell these days, when attempting to navigate outside the soupy waters of materialism seems either impossible or deluded. After all, we have a fridge, therefore materialism is true.Nevertheless, in this brief essay I suggest this is not the case, and that we have good reasons to think that it is not consciousness that comes out of matter, but the other way round: consciousness comes first, in a paradigm known as idealism.5

I shall first argue the case for materialism as proposed by some of its more sophisticated defenders, drawing inspiration from books such as Sean Carroll’s6 and Carlo Rovelli’s.7 Two arguments —one gnoseological, the other ontological— for consciousness will follow in abbreviated form, as well as the consequences that derive from them, and a few concluding remarks that have personally enriched my own experience.

 

The case for matter

The regularities we perceive around us prod us into formulating explanatory models. Most useful among these is the imagining of a thing called ‘matter’ that obeys certain physical laws. Even if this matter cannot explain consciousness (see the ‘hard problem of consciousness’) it can still ostensibly explain all physical phenomena, something that intuitively leads us to believe that matter really exists outside and independently of consciousness. Perhaps even more importantly, postulating the existence of consciousness and subjective experience does not improve the explanatory power of the concept of ‘matter.’ Therefore, Occam’s razor suggests that matter is definitely outside and independent of consciousness. In this regard most opinions fall in mainly two camps:

  1. Consciousness does not exist at all, it is an illusion;
  2. Consciousness exists but is secondary: it emerges from material patterns.

Most materialists adhere to the second option, which has its intellectual appeal. The implicit metaphysical paradigm behind it is called ‘causal structuralism,’ according to which things exist only insofar as they participate in defining other elements in the big web of things. This web is parsimonious: nodes that have no links to other nodes are not admitted, and so disconnection is synonymous with non-existence. Things have no consistency of their own: each is defined as the set of links it has with other things.

 

The case for consciousness: gnoseological argument

By ‘consciousness’ here we refer to phenomenal consciousness, the ‘space’ that, in a screen-like fashion, may be filled with many different experiential contents. We intuitively divide these into two main groups:

  1. Those we identify with: emotions, sensations, feelings, thoughts;
  2. Those we do not identify with: perceptions.

This criterion is based on whether we feel we can control/create such contents. However, this feeling is fluid. Control often escapes us when it comes to negative emotions, earworm songs or unpredictable thoughts that seem to obey their own independent flow.

At the same time, and as mystics of all times can confirm, the opposite may happen, and then we identify with all the contents of consciousness. In this case, the point is not about control (or lack thereof) over such contents, but rather on identifying with the ‘screen’ within which they unfold.8

Nevertheless, we can also classify the contents of consciousness in other ways, such as:

  1. Conceptual knowledge, which is indirect or non-immediate, populated by conceptual entities.
  2. Non-conceptual knowledge, which is direct or immediate, populated by qualia.

Conceptual entities are always defined in relation to something else: in a dictionary every word/concept is defined in terms of other words/concepts, weaving and knotting a network where each node is connected to a set of other nodes that define it. Each concept is explainable in terms of other concepts (or qualia): thus, the conceptual realm is the realm of reduction, i.e. of causal structuralism. It is also the realm where ‘matter’ lives and, by extension, all physical entities as well.

Let’s take light as an example: whatever physical light is, it is not what we perceive as light. When a stream of photons hits the retina, it does not pierce our skull and illuminate its interior. Instead, it becomes a train of electrical impulses that is correlated with, yet different from, physical light. Photons are concepts we have imagined in order to model certain kinds of perceptual regularities, and they work beautifully, but no one has actually perceived one in a direct way. Strangely enough (from a materialistic perspective, that is), we perceive light in our nightly dreams, although our eyes are closed and thus correlation with any physical ‘reality out there’ is impossible.

Unfortunately, causal structuralism forgets that many things exist outside the conceptual realm, such as the qualities of experience, or ‘qualia.’ Qualia are irreducible: they exist by themselves, and thus cannot be reduced or defined in relation to others. Someone who has never seen red cannot know it by seeing green or blue (i.e. other qualia) or by knowing the frequency of its correlated, physical, electromagnetic wave (a concept). Whereas concepts may be fully grasped based on other concepts, this is not the case with qualia: the only way of truly knowing the taste of a mango is by eating one.

The existence of qualia is different to that of concepts. ‘Existence’ comes from Latin ex– (out) + –sistere (to stand): an entity exists when it stands forth against the background of other entities. In order to exist, concepts lean on other concepts and/or qualia, whereas qualia stand forth (i.e. exist) by themselves, a property that scholastic philosophy used to call perseitas or ‘perseity.’

Now a materialist might say: well, alright, we might conceive physical light as a concept, not standing forth by itself, but maybe this is just our cognitive fault and in reality physical light is a non-conceptual entity. To this, an idealist can quickly respond: sure, why not; however, if physical light is non-conceptual, then it can only be in the camp of qualia. There is no escaping that either something stands forth by itself (and we refer to it as quale) or it stands forth through others different from itself (and we refer to it as concept): tertium non datur.

Qualia stand directly on the ground of being, while concepts are built above this surface. Yet conceptual networks cannot be entirely suspended in midair: at least some concepts must act as anchors that have a one-to-one association with direct, immediate experiences, i.e. qualia. If a language must be intelligible, then a minimum percentage of its vocabulary must refer to qualia. Many of the logical, ontological and ethical paradoxes we humans have stumbled upon are rooted in our willingness to imagine a groundless language (i.e. conceptual system), afloat and unmoored, disconnected from the ground of qualities.

In this light, the hard problem of consciousness can be seen as the unsolvable consequence of our misguided attempts to reverse the ontological order, trying to ground qualities in concepts. Needless to say, this does not work. As qualia are the ontological basis of concepts, consciousness has ontological priority over matter. The world is exactly what it seems to be: a qualitative phenomenon unfolding in consciousness.9

 

The case for consciousness: ontological argument

We can formulate a second argument in favor of consciousness that stems from the world of fiction-making, where entire conceptual universes (with their own internal structures, natural laws and inhabitants) may spring into being in the form of novels, video games, films or role-playing games. In some cases we even create nested universes, such as in Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story or in the film The Thirteenth Floor, where virtual realities are simulated within virtual realities and so on and so forth.

Let us, for the sake of brevity, refer to such processes as simulations; in every simulation there are three realities at play:

Reality A: the simulated reality;
Reality B: the reality where the simulation runs, and
Reality C: the reality underlying (grounding) the first two.

It so happens that reality C always coincides with reality B, and can never coincide with reality A. This means that agents inside B and C can interact directly with each other, but agents living in A cannot interact directly with those of B. We say that reality A does not have being-in-itself; that is, it does not exist in itself; rather, it exists in(side) another (reality B-C). Reality A is an extrinsic appearance of reality B: entities in reality A are symbols of entities in reality B. The property of existing-in-itself is called inseitas in Latin.

If we apply this reasoning to a landscape painting, we have:

Reality A: the mountains, valleys, rivers and sheep depicted;
Reality B: the canvas and the oils with which the painting is made;
Reality C: the universe in which the painter lives.

Clearly the painter (reality C) belongs in the same universe as the canvas and oil paints (reality B). The painter is not a character in the painting (reality A does not coincide with reality B) and cannot interact with the sheep painted on the canvas.

The nature of the simulation is always heavily dependent on the means available in the reality where the simulation takes place, and these may change over time: canvas and paint have been around for centuries, whereas computers are a recent development. If we take a video game as another example, we have:

Reality A: the race cars simulated in the video game;
Reality B: the hardware in which the video game software runs;
Reality C: the universe in which the software engineer lives, as well as those who produced the hardware.

The electronic engineer (reality C) belongs in the same universe as the hardware (reality B), yet the engineer does not coincide with an avatar inside the video game (if the avatar dies, the engineer does not die).

In a book or movie, such as Lord of the Rings, we have:

Reality A: Frodo ‘lives’ inside the movie and is subject to (apparent) causal relationships with other entities in the movie (Sauron might kill him);
Reality B: the TV screen where you are watching the film;
Reality C: the universe in which the viewer watching the film lives.

The viewer (reality C) shares the same universe with the TV screen (reality B), but neither of them can be destroyed by Sauron, whereas Frodo can (as both are in reality A).

Now let’s apply the same kind of reasoning to conscious perception:

Reality A: the world I seem to perceive and be immersed in, a world I interpret to be made up of matter, energy, space, time, fields, and which is completely describable in quantitative terms.
Reality B: my consciousness, which contains my perceptions, sensations, emotions; ultimately a world entirely populated by qualitative entities.
Reality C: the ground of being.

It follows that the ground of being (reality C) and my consciousness (reality B) belong to the same kind of reality, made up of qualitative stuff. If we could peek outside of our own consciousness, we would find no matter: only consciousness itself, the reality within which the ‘matter simulation’ ultimately exists. Matter has not inseitas; rather, it has its being (its existence) in consciousness. Matter is an extrinsic appearance of consciousness.

 

How matter and consciousness interact

After having spoken in favor of the primacy of consciousness we can re-examine the argument in favor of matter.

The gnoseological argument tells us that matter, as a concept, needs to be grounded on a qualitative substratum, otherwise it remains suspended in air. The ontological argument tells us that, within physical reality, matter can perfectly explain various phenomena without resorting to consciousness. Matter is a coherent conceptual model that lives in a type A reality, and within such reality it does not need to postulate consciousness. Matter is like a well-built video game universe narrative, where the rules of the game form a closed referential system: they need not refer to something outside their universe. This is why it is problematic to study consciousness (fist person perspective, B reality) from a scientific (third person perspective) A reality.

However, matter (an A reality) cannot be grounded in itself. As the reality that underlies matter has a qualitative nature, consciousness must come before matter. Following the ontological argument, one may wonder: could the reality of consciousness be itself a simulation (that is, a type A reality within an even more fundamental reality)? Has consciousness inseitas?

The gnoseological argument suggests it is not the case, because grafted realities can only be populated with ‘concepts’ ultimately grounded in qualia, whereas qualia are, by definition, grounded in themselves. Metaphysically, we can say that, since the contents of consciousness (qualia) have perseitas, then consciousness has inseitas. Therefore, consciousness is the ground of being.

Another intriguing line of reasoning focuses on what happens at the borders of a type A reality. In a well-designed reality A, no strange behaviors should be noticed; nothing that violates its internal rules; not a single glimpse into reality B. A suggestive hypothesis to explain the spooky behaviors of our physical reality, such as quantum mechanics or paranormal phenomena, is that these happen in proximity to the limits of the ‘simulation.’

 

The one and the many

If consciousness is not an afterthought sprung by accident from a material universe—if it truly is the ground of being—our curiosity impels us to ask questions such as: how is it that there are so many ‘individual consciousnesses’ and so many qualia? What are the dynamics of consciousness?

If we focus on how entities interact among themselves, we may notice the following:

  1. A sum of conceptual entities is extensive, i.e. one comes next to the other (let’s call them ‘things,’ put side by side).
  2. A sum of qualia, on the other hand, is intensive, i.e. one is inside the other (we shall call them ‘processes’).

Conceptual entities as things are static, whereas qualia are processes because they are alive. Once subdivided, things cannot be reunited into wholeness: no matter how carefully you glue them together, a pile of eggshells cannot go back to being an egg. On the other hand, processes have no boundaries and may interpenetrate each other, sometimes as far as reaching a coincidentia oppositorum: they can be one and many at the same time. Consciousness is one process and at the same time many processes.

Let me illustrate this by going back to direct experience: a music concert I attended last week. If time had stopped while I was listening to the symphony, the musical experience itself would have disappeared. All qualia are experienced in the process of one transforming into another, and the transformation itself is a quale. In fact, our perception of time does not correspond to a sequence of discrete points with no depth, but always as a continuum that has duration: experienced time has a certain thickness to it. The idea of physical time as a necklace of microscopic pearls where every instant is an individual bead is a useful conceptual abstraction built upon, yet profoundly different from, our qualitative experience of time, in which being and becoming are one and the same.10

Qualitative, metaphysical time is a fundamental aspect of consciousness, without which certain perceptions, such as that of movement, make no sense. The sum of qualia, in which they interpenetrate each other like fluids, can only happen in time that has thickness. When we experience a moment of ecstasy, of beauty or union, the perception of time slows down—or, conversely, its thickness swells, thus intensifying our qualitative perception.

Interestingly enough, in extensive sums the addends (things) disappear and are no longer distinguishable: 10 can be both the result of 8+2 and of 5+5. However, in intensive sums the addends (processes) do not disappear, but live more intensely within the bigger process that includes them.

Going back to the example of music, a bunch of notes played separately are distinct qualia. Yet, if we play them together, we will have an intensive addition, in which the ‘individual’ notes continue to exist within a new process: a symphony. The same notes, once enfolded into the symphony, seem transfigured because we perceive them interpenetrating.

We, amateurs that know little about music, have a limited ability to appreciate it, as everything appears indistinct to us. However, if we devote ourselves to studying and understanding how music works, how to compose or play musical pieces, the indistinct becomes distinct: we learn to perceive the individual notes. At this point, next time we listen to a symphony we will perceive the interpenetration, the union in the distinction of all notes and the experience will be more intense. Unlike things, qualia can increase in intensity if you break them down and put them back together again. This is the dynamic of qualia that is implemented in each single conscious being: each single eye of the universal consciousness.

Thus considered, life may be seen as a creative, never-ending process—an infinite game—of learning how to perceive the distinctness in the indistinct, only to let qualia flow back and merge together, intensifying their combined tastes like so many ingredients in a well-made recipe.

Indeed, such a soup might be true food for the soul.

 

Bibliography

  1. Steven Weinberg (1993). Dreams of a Final Theory.
  2. Joseph Campbell (2008). The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
  3. Viktor E. Frankl (2008). Man’s Search For Meaning.
  4. Yuval Noah Harari (2018). 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
  5. Bernardo Kastrup (2019). The Idea of the World.
  6. Sean Carroll (2016). The Big Picture.
  7. Carlo Rovelli (2021).
  8. Rupert Spira (2017). The Nature of Consciousness.
  9. Bernardo Kastrup (2015). Brief Peeks Beyond.
  10. Iain McGilchrist (2021). The Matter with Things.

Falling for naive common-sense: Russell and physical realism (The Return of Metaphysics)

Falling for naive common-sense: Russell and physical realism (The Return of Metaphysics)

Reading | Philosophy

The Starry Night - Vincent van Gogh painting in Low Poly style. Conceptual Polygonal Illustration

This essay recounts the story of our falling for naive physical realism—the notion that we can become directly acquainted with non-mental entities, which are supposed to have standalone existence—in the early 20th century, and how modern thought is now bringing us back to the more mature German Idealism that prevailed in the West during the early 19th century. This is the fourth instalment of our series, The Return of Metaphysics, produced in collaboration with the Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI). It was first published by the IAI on May 9, 2022.

In the late 1890s the Cambridge philosophers G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell made a remarkable and creative leap forward: their ‘discovery’, they declared, was of the principles underlying what they called their ‘New Philosophy.’ According to this philosophy, reality consists of a mind-independent plurality of separate, independently existing entities. They are entities that, when we perceive them, are given to us immediately or directly, so without relying upon our having any mediating ideas or internal representations of them, hence given to us without any conceptual trappings of our mental making.

Moore and Russell called their philosophy ‘new’ because they believed its discovery marked a decisive break in history; they envisaged their philosophy would sweep away all of its predecessors. Even though other philosophical traditions endured and indeed flourished later, their youthful confidence was far from being entirely misplaced. Their New Philosophy was destined to become one of the contributing streams—one of the most significant—that fed into what was to become that great intellectual river system, analytic philosophy. Nonetheless, a key idea from the Hegelian philosophy they were revolting against would continue to pose a challenge to their realist shift.

 

The resurgence and death of Hegelian philosophy?

To most bystanders watching at the end of the nineteenth century, it would hardly have seemed likely that the New Philosophy would turn into analytic philosophy, and analytic philosophy then become the dominant tradition in the United Kingdom. During the late nineteenth century, Hegelian idealists had become the dominating force in British philosophy, although it would still be an exaggeration to say that theirs was the only voice to be heard. But the British Hegelians had the ascendency and they were inspired by some of the most general features of Hegel’s worldview—even if they didn’t always embrace the specific details of Hegel’s philosophy or his dialectical method, whereby intellectual advance is to be achieved by overcoming the contradiction of thesis and antithesis to achieve a higher synthesis. What especially captivated the British idealists was Hegel’s belief that separateness is ultimately an illusion. The apparent separateness of things—their plurality—was, for Hegel, an illusion, because he held that what is ultimately real and intelligible is only the whole of reality; apparently separate things only have reality to some degree, depending upon the degree to which they contribute to the intelligibility of the whole. Hegel called the whole of reality ‘the Absolute’ and he conceived of the Absolute as spiritual [Editor’s note: it can be argued that ‘spiritual’ is a mistranslation of Hegel’s original ‘Geist,’ which also means ‘mind,’ in which case Hegel’s Absolute is mental, not spiritual.] Moore and Russell held just the opposite of this. According to the New Philosophy, separate things are perfectly intelligible independently of one another, or anything else, whilst the whole of reality isn’t spiritual.

What many of the British Hegelians found inspiring about Hegel’s worldview, at least since the publication in 1865 of J.H. Stirling’s The Secret of Hegel, was the promise it held out of a metaphysical backing for religion, religion having hitherto been threatened by the advance of materialism and the reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution. The Scottish philosopher Edward Caird (1835-1908), who held a Chair of Philosophy in Glasgow before becoming the Master of Balliol College in Oxford, was a leading and influential advocate of this Hegel-inspired apologia for religion. In his Hegel, published in 1883, Caird maintained that religion and materialistic science aren’t really in conflict at all because neither make sense except when understood as a partial fragment of a higher, integrated unity.

The resurgence of interest in Hegel to be found in Britain—and, as it happens, around the same time, in the United States too—also ranks as a twist of philosophical fate that could hardly have been expected by many bystanders. That’s because Hegel’s philosophy had been largely buried and defunct in Germany by mid-century. The peculiarity of the historical situation wasn’t lost upon the American pragmatist William James (1842-1910). He wrote,

We are just now witnessing, a singular phenomenon in British and American philosophy. Hegelism, so entirely defunct on its native soil that I believe but a single young disciple of the school is to be counted among the privat-docents and younger professors of Germany, and whose older champions are all passing off the stage, has found among us so zealous and able a set of propagandists that to-day it may really be reckoned one of the most potent influences of the time in the higher walks of thought.

What explained the decline of Hegel’s influence in Germany was a ‘back to Kant’ movement, a ‘neo-Kantianism’ that eschewed speculative metaphysics, such as Hegel had inspired, in favour of a respect for the natural sciences. The Marburg School of Neo-Kantians, in particular, had an especial interest in understanding, methodologically speaking, how the natural sciences functioned. It was a movement destined to be one amongst other sources of another of the most significant streams feeding into the river system of analytic philosophy: namely, the logical empiricism of the Vienna Circle.

 

The realist challenge of science and common sense

The fact is that Moore and Russell, in the late 1890s, were more aligned with the prevailing currents of European thought than any of the British Hegelians. Nevertheless, they still considered the system of one British Hegelian, the Oxford philosopher F.H. Bradley (1846-1924), an important foil for their own philosophy. But why did they consider it worth engaging with the views of any British Hegelian? The answer was that Bradley stuck out from the rest. Like many British Hegelians, Bradley had been an admirer of Hegel without adhering to the details of Hegel’s philosophy. But Bradley was led by his arguments to a conclusion that went further from Hegel than other Hegelians were prepared to envisage. For this reason, Bradley came under fire just as much from them as from his other adversaries. Caird had argued in more or less general and speculative terms for a higher synthesis of science and religion to resolve the widely acknowledged clash between them. By contrast, Bradley argued with a forthrightness and dialectical acumen that emulated Parmenides and Zeno, albeit expressed with Victorian curlicues. Bradley aimed for the destructive conclusion that discursive thought per se is ultimately unintelligible, inevitably driven to its own ‘suicide’—and that included common-sense, scientific and religious thought. Since Moore and Russell held discursive thought to be the very vehicle of intelligibility, but found Bradley’s arguments demanding and difficult to dismiss, the philosophical stakes could not have been higher for them. They had no choice, intellectually speaking, but to engage with Bradley.

To think discursively is to reflect upon the connections between separate things, their interrelatedness. That means thinking, for example, about the resemblance of one thing to another, or reflecting upon the distance between them, or registering the fact that what happens to one is before what happens to the other. Bradley’s point was that the idea of one thing or event connected to another, whether in space or time or by relations of resemblance, makes no sense.

One of the arguments upon which he placed the greatest weight is now called ‘Bradley’s Regress.’ It takes the form of a dilemma. Suppose we take the connection between two things to be ‘something itself,’ so distinct from both of them. This means the connection is a third thing. But we cannot understand their connection this way. By construing their connection as a third thing that, so to speak, sits alongside them, we have only added to our labours because now we have to explain how these three things are connected. It won’t help to say that the connection with them is a fourth thing because their connection will be a fifth thing, and so on, ad nauseum. Alternatively, if the connection between two things isn’t ‘something itself,’ it is mysterious how the two are connected at all. Bradley summarized, “If you take the connection as a solid thing, you have got to show, and you cannot show, how the other solids are joined to it. And, if you take it as a kind of medium or unsubstantial atmosphere, it is a connection no longer.” Since discursive thought presupposes the intelligibility of connections and there’s no making sense of connections, Bradley concluded that discursive thought cannot be ultimately intelligible. This wasn’t the only argument Bradley gave for this conclusion, but it was the argument he prized the most.

The Archimedean point from which Russell chose to mount his defence of discursive thought against Bradley’s onslaught was the outlook of contemporary scientific culture. Russell’s strategic judgment was that “there is more likelihood of error” in Bradley’s argument “than in so patent a fact as the interrelatedness of the things in the world.” Russell felt entitled to this judgement of the relative likelihood of error in Bradley’s argument because, as a matter of fact, science presupposes that there are interrelated things. This presupposition has survived the test of time, paying dividends in terms of the scientific developments that depend upon it, but also the technological applications of science. Consider, for example, the kinetic theory of gases, which presupposes that a gas consists of a large number of particles in rapid motion, which are constantly colliding: what that means is a plurality of separate but interrelated things. Russell conceded that, if we were ancient Greeks, ignorant of subsequent scientific achievements, then we might follow Bradley’s argument where it leads. But we cannot wish away what we know now, as members of a scientific culture that has seen extravagant philosophical systems and philosophers’ iconoclastic arguments continually fall by the wayside whilst scientific knowledge, which presupposes the interrelatedness of separate things, has inexorably accumulated. Knowing what we know now, we cannot follow Bradley’s argument where it leads.

Moore shared Russell’s strategic judgement of the relative likelihood of error having crept into Bradley’s argument, but Moore’s Archimedean point was a different one. He had a common-sense outlook, a worldview whose successful track record outstrips even that of science—a track record, running back millennia rather than centuries, of enabling Homo sapiens to successfully navigate their environment. For Moore, the common-sense view is that there are many material objects, both animate and inanimate, which occupy space, and there are many events to which material objects contribute, which occur in time, and that besides having bodies, we have minds, and we know all this to be true because of our appreciation of concrete cases. Bradley had argued that neither space nor time can be real because space and time presuppose that there are spatial and temporal relations holding between separate things and separate events, the kind of interrelatedness that Bradley held to be unintelligible. Moore replied that his pen was sitting right next to his inkwell and he had definitely gone for a stroll after lunch. Moore put it to his audiences that we are each of us far more certain of such concrete truths than we are certain of the cogency of Bradley’s reasoning. So common sense, never mind the scientific outlook, tells us we’re not in a position to repudiate the reality of interrelatedness.

 

Russell’s ‘knowledge by acquaintance,’ the myth of Given, and the return of Hegel

Did this mean that the New Philosophy had won? Bradley didn’t think so, because he was prepared to deny the intelligibility of science and our common-sense outlook. But whilst few British Hegelians were prepared to follow Bradley in this regard, they had other criticisms to make of the New Philosophy. Russell argued that our having knowledge of the external world relies upon our having ‘acquaintance’ with objects that are immediately given to us, where to be acquainted with an object means being primitively aware of it without knowing anything else about it—so without the distorting filters of our conceptual scheme. This was akin to the kind of cognitive set-up that Hegel had called ‘sense-certainty’ and subjected to searching criticism. Hegel’s basic point was that we cannot claim to have cognitively targeted some particular thing, and kept track of it, unless we are able to say what distinguishing features it has. But this requires us to have more than knowledge of the pure particular.

G.F. Stout (1860-1944) was one British philosopher who was influenced by Hegel, if not a card-carrying Hegelian. Stout had supervised Moore and Russell as undergraduates in Cambridge during the 1890s, but spent most of his career at the University of St. Andrews. It was integral to Stout’s philosophy that we cannot have immediate acquaintance with an object without knowing any truths about it. So Stout’s criticism of Russell, that “mere existential presence is not knowledge at all,” echoed Hegel’s critique of sense-certainty. Mere existential presence cannot provide the basis for cognitively detaching an object from its environment, because, Stout wrote, “If we inquire what in mere acquaintance we are acquainted with, mere acquaintance itself, being blind and dumb, can supply no answer.” In this respect Stout anticipated later developments within analytic philosophy, specifically Wilfred Sellar’s (1912-89) famous critique of ‘the Myth of the Given.’ So even though Moore and Russell’s common-sense and scientific outlooks carried the day, whilst Hegelianism became as defunct in the United Kingdom as it already had in Germany, recognizably Hegelian ideas continued to pose a challenge to Russell’s and Moore’s realism.

Is the human brain a model of the universe? Read and commented on by Nadia Hassan

Is the human brain a model of the universe? Read and commented on by Nadia Hassan

Listening | Cosmology | 2022-05-12

Essentia Readings Episode 8 thumbnail

The article Nadia Hassan reads today (written original here) presents documented similarities between the human brain and the cosmos, and poses the question: can either be modeled after the other? This very exciting possibility might allow as of yet undiscovered truths about both realms, and bring us closer to the Holy Grail of modern physics, the Theory of Everything. Check out other episodes of the Essentia Readings podcast.

Check out Melvin Felton’s recent book, Universe Within

Is Western thought marching towards Eastern Idealism?

Is Western thought marching towards Eastern Idealism?

Reading | Ontology

Ancient marble statue of the great Greek philosopher Socrates on background the blue sky.

Prof. Richard Grego argues that, if we extrapolate the evolutionary trajectory of Western scientific and philosophical thought since the European Enlightenment, it becomes possible to discern that it is progressing towards a consciousness-only ontology convergent with Eastern thought. This is a very scholarly but accessible essay.

Both Richard Richard Rorty [1] and Raymond Martin [2] have made the not altogether inaccurate, if somewhat simplistic, claim that ‘the mind’ (or consciousness), as we currently understand it in the West, is a contrivance of 17-18th century philosophy. Certainly, from the Enlightenment era onward, the predominant theories of mind and consciousness informing western philosophy, theology, psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience and popular culture have emerged from this intellectual legacy. As a consequence of the scientific revolution’s influence on what is often referred to as “the Western paradigm,” these theories have revolved around the “hard problem”: what is the mind-body relation and how can the existence of an immaterial mind be explained with respect to the material body? Since our minds and our conscious awareness, which seem to be non-material, also seem to involve the operations of our material body-brain, how does our nonmaterial mental experience relate to, or involve, the material world to which it is connected? Descartes’ “cogito ergo sum” first established the parameters of this problem by defining the respective ontological categories of ‘mind’ and ‘body,’ based on the “clear and distinct” datum of conscious experience that is plainly non-material, self-aware, subjective, purposeful and free, over against a physical body that is material, unaware, objective, purposeless and determined (except when it is animated by the mind that ‘inhabits’ it) [3]. This distinction also engendered further dichotomies like material/immaterial, subject/object, private /public, free/determined and natural/supernatural. As a founding father of the scientific revolution himself, Descartes understood that this division was an inevitable by-product of its naturalistic assumptions and methodology, which banished spirit, mind, meaning, purpose and value from the purview of physical science—and when adopted as a formal naturalistic metaphysics, would eventually banish them from reality entirely.

The mind-body / mental-physical “hard problem” [4] thus became, and continues to pose, a problematic dichotomy in the Western paradigm, and no field of knowledge or professional practice is unaffected by it. One consequence is that contemporary philosophy of mind has been configured by three general ‘umbrella’ theories of “dualism”  (that mind and body are two distinct entities or elements of some sort [5]), “materialism” (that the physical world described by contemporary science is the only reality, and what we call mind-consciousness is merely the neurochemical activity of the brain, or some epiphenomenon of this activity)—probably still the most popular view in our science-dominated age [6]—and “idealism” (that what we call the physical world is actually an aspect of consciousness, which is the sole and fundamental reality [7]). A fourth option, sometimes referred to as “neutral monism” (that there is some indeterminate ultimate basis for all dimensions of reality—mental, physical and anything else—that encompasses all these without being reducible to any of them [8]) has also emerged at various times through the history of Western thought, but has until very recently received relatively little popular attention.

Again, given the paradigm-shaping prestige of science in Western intellectual culture, various materialist philosophies of mind continue to remain popular, perhaps dominant, in contemporary discourse. As science has become increasingly influential not only as a narrow method for pursuing certain limited kinds of problems and projects (methodological naturalism [9]), but also as a kind of grand theory describing the nature of all existence exhaustively (metaphysical naturalism or scientism[10]), mind-consciousness has consequently come to be regarded as a physical phenomenon or substance entirely describable via scientific categories. The once popular dualist view advocated by philosophers like Descartes gradually, through the 18th and 19th centuries, gave way to more materialist theories of mind, among which are theories like “identity theory” (that mental states are simply brain states[11]), “behaviorism” (that what we call mental states are, in fact, forms of physical behavior [12]) and “epiphenomenalism”(that mental states are an inconsequential residual by-product or ‘shadow’ of physical states [13]). This has culminated recently in a group of theories falling under the umbrella term “eliminativism,” which suggests that the very concept of consciousness should either be understood in terms of some behavioral or physical processes amenable to scientific quantification, or dismissed as a kind of brain-generated illusion [14].

Over the past few decades however, numerous logical and empirical critiques of materialism have gained increasing influence in philosophy of mind and consciousness studies, despite the persistent cultural prominence of scientism and materialist metaphysics. Cognitive and neuroscientists have noted, for instance, that despite years of research recording accurate correlations between mental states and physical-brain states, the physical sciences still lack any empirically viable theory regarding how these might be causally connected, and what mechanisms may be involved. Philosophers have pointed out how, contrary to claims by materialists that conscious experience is reducible to some physical entity or force describable by the physical sciences, consciousness remains nonetheless beyond the ability of the sciences to define, measure or describe in any coherent physical way. Thoughts, feelings, imagination, etc., have no discernable volume, mass, charge or any physically measurable property to qualify as physical entities verifiable by the scientific method. Nor is there any explanation for the more epiphenomenal materialist claim that consciousness is a byproduct of material processes, as there is no scientifically discernible or logically sensible way that something non-material (like mind) can magically pop out of the material world. The mind, it seems, is an undeniable aspect of reality that can’t be explained away via any quantifiable or empirical material explanation.

As a result of these problems, philosophy of mind in the West, since the late 20th century, has begun to produce an increasing number of theories that trend in the direction of idealism—even if most are unwilling to embrace it completely. Panpsychism, for instance, is another umbrella term for a group of popular recent theories that attempt to reconcile scientific materialism with consciousness as a fundamental reality. Panpsychism is the general thesis that mind-consciousness, while still ontologically distinct from the rest of the physical universe, is nonetheless integral to it, and a number of prominent formerly materialist neuroscientists and philosophers have expanded their metaphysical purviews to accommodate it. David Chalmers (who coined the term “hard problem”) [15], brain scientist Kristof Koch [16] and eminent philosopher Galen Strawson [17] are former materialists-turned-panpsychists. Phil Goff [18] and Itay Shani [19] have advocated a form of panpsychism known as cosmopsychism—in which consciousness is not only a fundamental element of material reality, but also foundational to it.

In addition to panpsychist theories that portray consciousness as coextensive with the material world, more specific physics-based theories portray mind as emergent from increasingly abstract conceptions of the material world. For example, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff’s “orchestrated reduction” theory locates the origin of conscious awareness in state vector collapse of the Schrödinger wave function at the subatomic level, which takes place in the microtubules of the brain [20]. Giulio Tononi’s “integrated information theory” explains consciousness as the product of bits of quantum information functioning at high levels of complexity [21]. Bernard Carr traces consciousness to dimensions of hyperspace from contemporary string theory [22].

Beyond these, even more recent theories describe the status of consciousness in terms of straight-forward idealism. Bernardo Kastrup, for instance, conceives of consciousness as the single primordial substrate of all reality—encompassing completely the physical world described by science. Advocating a form of absolute idealism in the tradition of Schopenhauer (in a refined form that he calls “analytic idealism”) Kastrup conceives of material phenomena as kinds of mental qualities—resolving the “hard problem” by turning it on its head. Instead of attempting to explain how mind is possible in a material world, he explains how materiality, and the supposed separation between the mental and material, is all actually a form of conscious experience. Further, fundamental consciousness that creates the material world is a single substrate that only experiences material reality via individual minds, which in turn are dissociated aspects of this conscious substrate itself, like individual identities experienced by a person with multiple personality disorder. Material reality is a construct of the ultimate mind, and individuated minds experience this reality separately because they are estranged from their conscious source [23].

Interestingly, this trend in contemporary philosophy of mind suggests that the entire way in which Western metaphysics and mind are conceived may be evolving eventually toward some sort of self-transcendence, perhaps via a rapprochement with corresponding perennial ideas in Asian philosophical traditions. Several recent thinkers have drawn significant connections between Western cosmopsychism and idealism on one hand, and Hindu Advaita Vedanta philosophy (especially in its more recent neo-Vedanta formulations) on the other. Miri Albahari, for instance, has examined important similarities between Western cosmopsychism/idealism and Advaita Vedanta, while also noting substantial problems the former sometimes face and that the latter resolves. Western cosmopsychists (and even idealists like Kastrup to some extent), she claims, conceive of pure cosmic consciousness as a kind of ultimate or basic subject that posits the material world and other individual minds as its objects. However, in subtle contrast, Advaita Vedanta contends that the subjective and objective aspects of this reality are one and the same—both unified in the cosmic consciousness of which they are a part—just as the character’s perspective in a dream, and the seemingly external dream-world that this character perceives, are both ultimately aspects of a single unified consciousness that encompasses them both [24]. In Advaita Vedanta, rather than cosmic consciousness being a subject that posits each human mind –along with the apprehensions of each mind—as objects of its own apprehension, “nirvikulpa samadi” (the experience of Brahman or absolute Being, in its primordial state of unmitigated purity), like dreaming consciousness, is instead conscious experience prior to any subject/object duality, which also provides the basis for all the conscious subjects and their material objects of apprehension, generated as aspects of itself. Rather than a subject positing the world as its object, Brahman is the cosmic unity in which subject and object are unified. Advaita Vedanta’s cosmic consciousness is “one without a second” and beyond the subject/object relation that characterizes traditional Western conceptions of consciousness.

This kind of nuanced but significant difference that Albahari highlights between Advaita Vedanta and Western cosmopsychism/idealism can be illustrated further by contrasting Advaita Vedanta’s metaphysical categories with those of cosmopsychicism and idealism. Via its various interlocuters from Gaudapada and Shankara to modern neo-Vedanta philosophy, Advaita Vedanta views reality on the respective levels of ‘maya’ (the illusion of material and cognitive reality as the entirety of reality itself), “salvikalpa samadi” (the knowledge that one’s perception of cognitive-material reality is an illusional or truncated representation of true reality—Brahman), and “nirvikalpa samadi” (the experience of Brahman via pure experience itself, which transcends all knowing, even while encompassing it), which is nothing less than the vital experience of oneness with cosmic consciousness as it continuously creates all existence. Similar Western schools of thought all retain in some way a conception of consciousness (via various forms of subjective, absolute and analytic idealism, or panpsychism and cosmopsychism) shared by Advaita Vedanta, in recognizing the ultimately mental nature of both the cognitive/physical world and the cosmic consciousness generating it. However, the persistent understanding of consciousness in these Western conceptualizations always retains some sense of consciousness inhering in a substrate—whether this be the physical universe, as in many forms of panpsychism and cosmopsychism, or even perhaps Kastrup’s idealism, which posits a subjective substrate (“that which is conscious”) underwriting the contents of consciousness as its objects—which fails to resolve the dilemma of subject-object dualism as completely as the all-encompassing Advaita Vedanta cosmic mind does1. From the Advaita Vedanta perspective, Western panpsychism and Idealism remain at the ontological level of savikulpa samadi, rather than nirvikalpa samadi.

Thus, the trajectory of Western philosophy of mind appears to be culminating in a Vedanta-inspired universal conception of consciousness that transcends dualism, materialism and even idealism as heretofore conceived. Philosopher of science Michael Silberstein, for instance, subscribes to a “neutral monist” cosmology (based on current developments in theoretical physics and a ‘block universe’ interpretation of quantum cosmology, to which he has also drawn parallels with Advaita Vedanta metaphysics), which posits a more primordial source of all reality that precedes and grounds what we call material and mental—a source that is best described as what philosopher William James called ‘pure experience,’ or what Silberstein thinks may be best described as a kind of  “presence” in and through which mental and material, subject and object, operate in contingent relation to one another [25]. The experience of my subjective mind encountering an objective material world co-arise with one another and create one another whenever there is an asymmetry or dichotomy in the primordial ‘presence’ that engenders them (also understood as “dependent co-arising” or “dependent origination” in Buddhist philosophy). “As I awaken in the morning, the world appears to me, and this asymmetric dichotomy between my mind and the material world arises,” physicists Adam Frank and Marcelo Gleiser and Philosopher Evan Thompson write,

At a deeper level, we might ask how experience comes to have a subject-object structure in the first place. Scientists and philosophers often work with the image of an ‘inside’ mind or subject grasping an outside world or object. But philosophers from different cultural traditions have challenged this image. For example, the philosopher William James (whose notion of ‘pure experience’ influenced Husserl and Whitehead) wrote in 1905 about the ‘active sense of living which we all enjoy, before reflection that shatters our instinctive world for us.’ That active sense of living doesn’t have an inside-outside/subject-object structure; it’s subsequent reflection that imposes this structure on experience. More than a millennium ago, Vasubandhu, an Indian Buddhist philosopher of the 4th to 5th century CE, criticised the reification of phenomena into independent subjects versus independent objects. For Vasubandhu, the subject-object structure is a deep-seated, cognitive distortion of a causal network of phenomenal moments that are empty of an inner subject grasping an outer object. [26]

Ultimately though, perhaps this ‘neutral’ kind of ‘presence’ might, as Advaita Vedanta suggests, actually be a deeper kind of consciousness –“pure experience” in James’ terms or ‘pure awareness’ in Advaita Vedanta terms. Since cosmic consciousness or Brahman (like ‘presence’ for Silberstein), as the primordial groundless ground of all existence, remains beyond the subject-object distinction and is the source of all possibility while remaining itself both immanent in, but irreducible to, any comprehension itself, it certainly would seem to exhibit the qualities that Silberstein’s neutral monism prescribes. Silberstein’s work suggests that the problematic nature of the hard problem perhaps involves the realization, foundational to so many Eastern philosophies and religions, that the living experience of consciousness transcends any theory—physical or philosophical—about it. As the ground of possibility for all theories, cosmic consciousness is not reducible to any theory itself.

Preeminent neo-Vedanta, idealist and comparative philosopher of world religions, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, maintained that Advaita Vedanta’s concept of “nirguna Brahman” (Brahman as primordial consciousness encountered beyond all conceptual representations) provides the world’s oldest original, perennial and universal mode of encountering existence that simultaneously transcends and includes all world civilizations’ religious, philosophical, scientific and other conceptual frameworks [27]. In this way, universal consciousness lies beyond our ability to comprehend it via any rational, discursive or abstract ideation that we may use to represent it conceptually—always exceeding any representation of it, although it engenders and encompasses these representations. This explains the inability of dualist, materialist, and even most Western idealist theories of mind to ever fully countenance consciousness. So long as we try to reduce consciousness—which is cosmic presence or pure awareness—to any abstract theory that fits neatly into a conceptual scheme, we separate our understanding from the very phenomenon we are attempting to understand, and so the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness in Western philosophy and science will never go away. As the Vedas famously proclaim:

Who knows for certain, who shall here declare it?
Whence was it born, and whence came this creation?
The gods were born after this world’s creation:
Who can know from whence it has arisen?

None knoweth whence creation has arisen.
And whether he has or has not produced it.
He who surveys it in the highest heaven,
He only knows, or haply he may know not. [28]

References

  1. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31947.Philosophy_and_the_Mirror_of_Nature
  2. https://cup.columbia.edu/book/the-rise-and-fall-of-soul-and-self/9780231137447
  3. http://eddiejackson.net/web_documents/Descartes%27%20Meditations%20on%20First%20Philosophy.pdf
  4. https://blog.ted.com/the-hard-problem-of-consciousness-david-chalmers-at-ted2014/
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bIS3oRb6ag
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrRJit82aus
  7. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=97MwsoHF2ps
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15tupQ7wOd4
  9. https://www.naturalism.org/worldview-naturalism/tenets-of-naturalism
  10. https://www.naturalism.org/worldview-naturalism/tenets-of-naturalism
  11. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrRJit82aus
  12. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrRJit82aus
  13. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VrRJit82aus
  14. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrFqhOvNtWM
  15. https://blog.ted.com/the-hard-problem-of-consciousness-david-chalmers-at-ted2014/
  16. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZJ1XBrJhDc
  17. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pi-TOxtczQQ
  18. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15tupQ7wOd4
  19. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00371/full
  20. https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=mcafee&ei=UTF-8&p=penrose+hameroff+quantum+consciousness&type=E211US105G0#id=1&vid=25fb1d59b8e73148b9ef1cb6967b9e00&action=click
  21. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZJ1XBrJhDc
  22. https://www.essentiafoundation.org/seeing/making-space-and-time-for-matter-and-mind/
  23. https://mindmatters.ai/2020/08/bernardo-kastrup-argues-for-a-universal-mind-as-a-reasonable-idea/
  24. https://www.panpsychism.com/handbook-panpsychism.pdf#page=132
  25. https://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Dynamical-Universe-Unifying-Experienced/dp/0198807082,    https://philpapers.org/rec/SILPNM
  26. https://aeon.co/essays/the-blind-spot-of-science-is-the-neglect-of-lived-experience
  27. http://www.cronksite.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/RadhakrishnanGC.pdf , https://mast.queensu.ca/~murty/Lecture-11.pdf
  28. http://www.hinduonline.co/DigitalLibrary/SmallBooks/FourVedasEng.pdf


Editor’s notes
1 Bernardo Kastrup does not endorse this interpretation or characterization of analytic idealism. Under the latter, all experiences—and, therefore, all seeming ‘objects’—are merely excitations of a universal field of subjectivity, just as ripples are excitations of water. As such, for the same reason that there is ultimately nothing to ripples but water, there is ultimately nothing to physical objects—and even seemingly individual subjects, such as you and me—but the field of subjectivity itself. The subject-object dualism is thus completely resolved under analytic idealism. Allusions to ‘substrates,’ under analytic idealism, are merely metaphorical, meant to aid understanding, but do not entail or imply the ultimate existence of anything but pure subjectivity.

How can you be me? The answer is time

How can you be me? The answer is time

Reading | Philosophy

Chess Character knight warrior reflection in a mirror-represent hypocrisy personality

That you believe you were your five-year-old self is grounds to believe that you can be another person, right now, while still being you, argues our executive director in this stimulating theoretical essay.

How can one universal subject be you, and me, and everybody else, at once? This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of analytic idealism to wrap one’s head around, for it implies that you are me, at the same time that you are yourself. How can this possibly be? After all, you can see the world through your eyes right now, but not through mine.

Although reference to dissociative disorders, empirically validated as they are, forces us to accept that such somehow can indeed be the case—for it is the case in severely dissociated human minds—the question of how to visualize the dissociation remains difficult. How can you visualize a process by virtue of which you are me while being yourself concurrently? How are we to get an intuitive handle on this?

Notice that what makes it so difficult is the simultaneity of being implied in the hypothesis: you can easily visualize yourself being your five-year-old self—an entity different from your present self in just about every way—because being your five-year-old self is not concurrent with being your present self: one is in the past, the other is in the present. Visualizing oneself taking two different points of view into the world does not offer any challenge to our intuition, provided that these points of view aren’t taken concurrently.

Here is an example. When I was a child, I used to observe a very curious behavior of my father’s: he would play chess against himself, a common and effective training technique in a time before computerized chess engines. Doing so helps a chess player learn how to contemplate the position on the board from the opponent’s point of view, in order to anticipate the opponent’s moves. My father would perform this exercise quite literally: he would play a move with the white pieces, turn the entire board around by 180 degrees, and play a move with the black pieces. Then turn the board back to white again, and so on.

My father—a single subject—was taking two different points of view into the world, experiencing the battle drama of the game from each of the two opposing perspectives; one subject, two points of view. We have no difficulty understanding this because the two perspectives weren’t simultaneous, but instead occupied distinct points in time.

Yet, we’ve known for over a century now that time and space are aspects of one and the same thing: the fabric of spacetime. Both are dimensions of extension in nature, which allow for different things and events to be distinct from one another by virtue of occupying different points in that extended fabric. For if two ostensibly distinct things occupy the same point in both space and time, then they can’t actually be distinct. But a difference in location in either space or time suffices to create distinction and, thereby, diversity. By occupying the same point in space, but at different times, two objects or events can be distinguished from each other; but so can they be distinguished if they exist simultaneously at different points in space.

The way to gain intuition about how one subject can seem to be many is to understand that differences in spatial location are essentially the same thing as differences in temporal location. This way, for the same reason that we have no difficulty in intuitively understanding how my father—a single subject—could seem to be two distinct chess players, we should have no intuitive difficulty in understanding how one universal subject can be you and me: just as my father could do so by occupying different perspectives at different points in time—that is, by alternating between black and white perspectives—the universal subject can do so by occupying different perspectives at different points in space; for, again, space is essentially the same thing as time.

Yet, the demand for this transposition from time to space still seems to be too abstract, not concrete or intuitively satisfying enough; at least to me. We need to make our metaphor a little more sophisticated.

A few years ago, I had to undergo a simple, short, but very painful medical procedure. So the doctors decided to give me a fairly small dose of a general anesthetic, which would knock me out for about 15 minutes or so. I figured that that would be a fantastic opportunity for an experiment: I would try to focus my metacognition and fight the effects of the drug for as long as I could, so to observe the subjective effects of the anesthetic on myself. I had undergone general anesthesia before, in my childhood, but had no recollection of that, so this was a fantastic chance to study my own consciousness with the maturity and deliberateness of an adult.

And so there I was, lying on an operating table, rather excited about my little experiment. The drug went in via the IV and I focused my observation of the contents of my own consciousness, like a laser. Yet, as the seconds ticked by, I couldn’t notice anything. “Strange,” I thought, “nothing seems to be happening.” After several seconds I decided to ask the doctors if it was normal for the drug to take so long to start causing an effect. Their answer: “We’re basically done, just hang on in there for a few more moments so we can wrap it up.”

“WHAT?” I thought. “They are basically done? How can that be? It hasn’t been a minute yet!” In fact, more than 15 minutes had already elapsed; they had already performed the whole procedure. I experienced absolutely no gap or interruption in my stream of consciousness; none whatsoever. Yet, obviously there had been one. How could that be? What had happened to my consciousness during the procedure?

The drug altered my perception of time in a very specific and surprising way. If we visualize subjective time as a string from where particular experiences—or, rather, the memories thereof—hang in sequence, the drug had not only distorted or eliminated access to some of those memories, but also cut off a segment of the string and tied the two resulting ends together, so to produce the impression that the string was still continuous and uninterrupted. I shall call this peculiar dissociative phenomenon ‘cognitive cut and tie.’ The memory of certain experiences in a cognitively associated line are removed from the line, and the two resulting ends seamlessly re-associated together, so the subject notices nothing missing.

Now let us bring this to bear on my father’s chess game. Imagine that we could manipulate my father’s perception of time in the following way: we would cut every segment of time when my father was playing white and tie—that is, cognitively associate—these segments together in a string, in the proper order; we would also do the same for the black segments. As a result, my father would have a coherent, continuous memory of having played a game of chess only as white, and another memory of having played another—albeit bizarrely identical—game of chess only as black. In both cases, his opponent would appear to him as somebody else. If you were to tell my father that it was him, himself, on the other side of the board all along, he would have thought you mad. For how could the other player be him, at the same time that he was himself, playing against his opponent?

The answer to how one universal subject can be many—to how you can be me, as you read these words—resides in a more sophisticated understanding of the nature of time and space, including the realization that, cognitively speaking, what applies to one ultimately applies to the other. As such, if you believe that you were your five-year-old self, then there is an important sense in which, by the same token, you must believe that you can be me. There is only the universal subject, and it is you. When you talk to another person, that other person is just you in a ‘parallel timeline’—which we call a different point in space—talking back to you across timelines. The problem is simply that ‘both of you’ have forgotten that each is the other, due to dissociative ‘cut and tie.’

A different subjective position in space is just a different point in a multidimensional form of time, and vice-versa. Indeed, such interchangeability between space and time is a field of rich speculation in physics. Physicist Lee Smolin, for instance, has proposed that space can be reduced to time. Physicist Julian Barbour, in turn, has proposed the opposite: that there is no time, just space. There may be a coherent theoretical sense in which both are right.

The most promising theoretical investigation in this area is perhaps that of Prof. Bernard Carr, from Queen Mary University London, a member of Essentia Foundation’s Academic Advisory Board. If his project is given a chance to be pursued to its final conclusions, it is possible that physics will offer us a conceptually coherent, mathematically formalized way to visualize how one consciousness can seem to be many.

Looking upon personal identity through the lens suggested above may convince you that, when an old wise man turns to a brash young lad and says, “I am you tomorrow,” such statement may have more layers of meaning than meets the eye at first.

Interview with Dr. Iain McGilchrist, on the nature of reality (Part 2)

Interview with Dr. Iain McGilchrist, on the nature of reality (Part 2)

Seeing | Philosophy | 2022-05-03

Rainbow Enlightenment. Escape to Reality series. Abstract arrangement of surreal sunset sunrise colors and textures on the subject of landscape painting, imagination, creativity and art

Here is the second and final part of our interview with Dr. Iain McGilchrist, on the nature of reality. Unmissable!

Interview with Dr. Iain McGilchrist, on consciousness and its role in nature

Interview with Dr. Iain McGilchrist, on consciousness and its role in nature

Seeing | Philosophy | 2022-04-17

Iain_McGilchrist

Essentia Foundation’s Natalia Vorontsova interviews psychiatrist and author Dr. Iain McGilchrist about his new work, “The Matter with Things,” and the role of consciousness in nature. Unmissable!

The Three Minds, read and commented on by Nadia Hassan

The Three Minds, read and commented on by Nadia Hassan

Listening | Medicine | 2022-04-10

Essentia Readings thumbnail Ep7

The article Nadia Hassan reads today shines an important light on the field of medicine, allopathic medicine in particular, and questions the largely biomedical approach underpinning mainstream practice. It argues for a more connected and balanced view, one in which the role of mind is paramount in understanding illness, and the process of healing. The original article can be found here. For all episodes of the Essentia Readings podcast, and links to its servers and platforms, check out the website.

The futile search for the non-mental: Derrida’s critique of metaphysics (The Return of Metaphysics)

The futile search for the non-mental: Derrida’s critique of metaphysics (The Return of Metaphysics)

Reading | Metaphysics

Peter Salmon | 2022-04-04

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Peter Salmon discusses Jacques Derrida’s critique of metaphysics: the argument that finding some objective, ‘uncontaminated,’ pure presence of being or reality in the world is impossible, for all of our experiences of the world are determined by our own mental contexts, our conceptual dictionaries, memories and expectations. However, the attentive reader will notice that, in criticizing metaphysics this way, far from refuting it, Derrida may actually make a case for idealism: the recognition that our reality isn’t just contaminated by the mental, but is mental in essence and being; for “the distinction between essence and existence, and between the ideal and the real (‘whatness’ and ‘thatness’) are illusions.” This essay is part of our The Return of Metaphysics series, produced in collaboration with the Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI). It was first published by the IAI on the 30th of March, 2022.

In January 1954, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, then 24 and just back from a summer in his Algerian home, visited the Husserl Archives in Louvain, Belgium. The archive had been founded in 1938, shortly after Husserl’s death, in order to protect his corpus from the Nazi authorities. Smuggled out by the Franciscan Father Herman Leo van Breda, the archive contains more than 45,000 shorthand pages, Husserl’s complete research library and 10,000 pages of typescripts.

But it was a small paper of no more than 30 pages, working title The Origin of Geometry, which was to spur a revolution in Derrida’s thinking. It would inform, with astonishing consistency, his work for the rest of his life, across a vast range of subjects – from traditional philosophical subjects such as meaning, language, ethics and religion, to issues such as gender, colonialism, film and hospitality. His first book was a translation of Husserl’s paper, its 30 pages ‘supplemented’ – to use a Derridean term – with an introduction of over 100 pages. In this introduction lay the seeds of all his later philosophy, and the terms forever associated with his name – deconstruction, différance, iteration and, crucially ‘the metaphysics of presence’ – Derrida’s vital contribution to the calling into question of the whole basis of Western metaphysics.

 

Husserl, phenomenology and the metaphysics of presence

How do we know stuff about the world? Husserl wrote in a letter to the mathematician Gottlob Frege that he was ‘tormented by those incredibly strange realms: the world of the purely logical and the world of actual consciousness… I had no idea how to unite them, and yet they had to interrelate and form an intrinsic unity.’ His first attempts had been via mathematics. By analyzing what a number is – something that ‘exists’ or something humans ‘create’ – he thought he would be able to establish a relationship between consciousness and the world. It was Frege’s criticism of this attempt due to its ‘psychologism’ – that is, its dependence on the internal mental states of the subject, rather than the logical relations at hand – which spurred Husserl to his subsequent investigations.

What if, Husserl argued, we put aside the question of ‘the world’ entirely, and look simply at consciousness? Whether something exists or not is both moot and distracting. Husserl introduced the concept of the ‘epoché’ – from the ancient Greek, meaning ‘suspension of judgement’. We ‘bracket’ the world; what is important is not whether this tree exists, but how we encounter it, how it affects us. The job of philosophy is to describe these affects and to build concepts from them, which we can later extend outwards.

Crucial here is the idea of ‘intentionality’: as Franz Brentano had pointed out, we don’t pace Descartes, or merely ‘think’; we ‘think about.’ All consciousness has a content, and in analyzing this content, Husserl wanted to unite the strange realms of thought and world. He called this method ‘phenomenology’ – the study of phenomena – and by the time Derrida arrived at Louvain it was one of the dominant strands of twentieth century philosophy, spurred on by students of Husserl such as Emmanuel Levinas and, crucially, Martin Heidegger.

The Origin of Geometry is a late unpublished work, but it grapples with the same problems as his early work. Geometrical objects are, for Husserl, the perfect example of ‘ideal’ objects: they are defined precisely by their non-spatiotemporal nature (there are no perfect circles in the world) and are thus purely ‘transcendental.’ How do we – humans – think them and use them? How do we – finite beings – create transcendental things? What is their origin? This is not a historical question – Husserl is not looking for the person to whom the first geometrical object occurred. It is a question of meaning.

While Derrida would always acknowledge his debt to Husserl – ‘Even in moments where I had to question certain presuppositions of Husserl, I tried to do so while keeping to phenomenological discipline’ – his critique of The Origin is wide-ranging and multi-stranded. One strand catches Husserl out for asserting that ideal objects require writing down in order to establish their existence – contrary to Husserl’s usual assertion, shared with most philosophers, that writing is a secondary activity compared to speech, indeed a parasitic derivation of it. This bias, which Derrida would later term ‘phonocentrism,’ would expand into his great work Of Grammatology.

Derrida also critiques the idea of the ahistorical, a strange state which contravenes, Derrida argues, all human experience. Derrida, in a method that would become familiar in his later works of deconstruction, seeks out moments in the text where history, as it were, sneaks back into Husserl’s analysis – slips of the pen which, like the example of writing, reveal aporias (irresolvable contradictions) in Husserl’s thinking, as surely as Freudian slips indicate the same in our thinking.

But his main focus is on the idea of origin, which – incorporating the two previous critiques – he uses as a lever to prise apart fundamental aspects of Husserl’s philosophy across his entire corpus, and from which he develops his critique of ‘the metaphysics of presence.’

Phenomenology, argues Derrida, posits a position from which we are able to study the affects of the world upon us, and from which we can investigate phenomena, including concepts. This position – the ‘now’ – is, somehow, pure, uncontaminated by anything that is not the now. And yet here, as in works such as The Phenomenology of Internal Time Consciousness, Husserl had very deliberately assessed that whatever the ‘now’ is, it isn’t pure.

We exist, as Husserl memorably puts it, in a ‘flowing thisness,’ from which we posit ‘now’s.’ But these ‘now’s’ are not independent entities, which can be extracted and analyzed. Rather, we are to think of them like notes in a piece of music. A particular note gets its meaning from its position in the overall piece – our memory of what has come before, our anticipation of what follows. Otherwise, we would have the same experience of hearing a C note whether it was part of a Beethoven symphony or a piece of death metal (not Husserl’s example). It is, in temporal terms, contextual.

Husserl calls what has come before ‘retention’ and what follows ‘protention’ and each ‘contaminates’ the now as surely as the notes before and after that C note. What Derrida highlights in his critique of phenomenology here is that, despite retention and protention always being already part of the now, Husserl retains an unexamined faith that there is still – sort of – a now, which retention and protention contaminate. A pure ‘now’ is still, in some sense, posited, even as its impossibility is asserted. ‘Contamination’ supposes something to be contaminated.

This is not, as can be seen, a case where, with greater knowledge, with greater effort dedicated to the question, we could get to the pure now. The pure now is impossible. This ‘fixed point’ on which phenomenology bases its claims is always impossible, can never not be ‘contaminated.’ The concept of the pure now is a hope.

Derrida’s crucial insight is that this ‘hope’ is not an idiosyncrasy of phenomenology, nor only of its analysis of time. Rather, it is endemic to philosophy itself. We exist in a ‘flowing thisness’ and philosophy, again and again, posits ideal, timeless, pure forms, which life somehow contaminates – as though there were a something ‘before’ or ‘outside’ of life. This is the structure of most religious philosophies – the ideal being God, the contamination being humanity. Platonic forms are ‘ideal’ examples of things like circles, to which no actual circle could aspire. The critique of temporal purity is as valid when applied to the spatial dimension.

The history of metaphysics, then, is a history of our hopes for presence – for a pure, central, present object of enquiry, from which we can derive our knowledge – the self included. Derrida’s critique of speech and writing captures this – unlike writing, speech is seen as ‘pure’ language, and thus an expression of our ‘true’ being – the religious might call it the soul, the non-religious some other term that really means soul. In fact, Husserl at one point goes further, arguing that even speaking words is a form of contamination, as we may be misunderstood. It is only the speech in our own head that is the pure self – an argument Derrida fully critiques in his Speech and Phenomena, perhaps his most thoroughgoing analysis of the metaphysics of presence.

 

There is no going “beyond” metaphysics

As Derrida recognized, Heidegger had, both directly and indirectly, made a similar critique of Husserl and of Western metaphysics. Husserl had attempted to arrive at pure phenomena and describe beings independent of any presuppositions – ‘to the things themselves’ as Husserl famously put it. But, as we have seen, pure phenomena do not exist. This, for Heidegger, was one of the ways in which the ‘question of the meaning of Being’ has been lost. In its search for a fundamentum absolutum, of an indubitable grounding for metaphysics, the openness of Being, as the Greeks understood it, has been occluded. In addition, the distinction between essence and existence, and between the ideal and the real (‘whatness’ and ‘thatness’) are illusions; Being precedes both. The mistake lies as far back as Plato – the birth of Western philosophy, with its categories, its hierarchies and taxonomies, wherein the moment Being is forgotten.

For Derrida – whose ‘deconstruction’ is deliberately based on Heidegger’s ‘destruktion,’ a method of taking apart while leaving intact – Heidegger, despite himself, is unable to go beyond metaphysics as he explicitly attempts to do. But then, as Derrida himself is aware, neither does Derrida. Firstly, we have no language to do so that is not already informed by metaphysical propositions:

There is no sense in doing without the concepts of metaphysics in order to shake metaphysics. We have no language – no syntax or lexicon – that is foreign to this history; we can pronounce not a single destructive proposition that has not already had to slip into the form, the logic and the implicit postulations of precisely what it seeks to contest.

Secondly, there is not ‘going beyond’ metaphysics, as this is to repeat the gesture about which he warns – to posit an ‘entity’ outside of (before, beyond) the mess of life. To take the example of the ‘now’ again: any analysis of the ‘now’ can only deal with the ‘now’ we have to deal with, impure as it is.

What Derrida does do, in recognizing this urge to posit the pure based on the impure, is to open up the possibility of a metaphysics that recognizes absence as fundamental to its structure. Derrida has some big gestures for this, such as his idea of hauntology, a near homonym of ontology, which studies ‘what there isn’t’ instead of ‘what there is’ (while recognizing the distinction is ultimately as contested, and revealing, as all dichotomies); thus histories that did not occur, beings that do not exist, futures and existents that never come to be – including pure democracy, the pure gift, pure hospitality. These limit cases, always beyond what can actually be, disclose knowledge about what there actually is, including concepts.

But his critique is also more intrinsic than that. Where there is ‘essence’ and ‘identity,’ Derrida posits ‘alterity’ and ‘difference.’ More, he posits ‘différance,’ a word he first uses in Speech and Phenomena. Pronounced exactly the same way as ‘difference’ (this is Derrida forcing the written word to be more decisive than the spoken) it is a complicated term, which incorporates the idea of differing and deferring. Western metaphysics has, in Derrida’s reading, always been a history of trying, as it were, to secure the meaning of words  – ‘truth is…’, ‘beauty is…’.

However, as anyone who has picked up a dictionary knows, every word is defined by another word, which is defined by another word – the meaning of word x is both deferred as we move along the chain, and is an effect of difference – we get its meaning in contrast to other words. There is no ur-word at the end of the dictionary, both sufficient to itself (it needs no other word to define it) and generative of everything else (thus producing meaning).

This is not accidental – ‘différance’ is built into language, as it is built into all concepts. It precedes meaning – for Derrida, fixing a meaning is a form of violence, and we should look not only at the act of doing so, but what it means that we attempt to. Deconstruction is a form of suspicion – Derrida sometimes described it as a parasitical method; anything is open to being deconstructed. But, as he pointed out, it is not imposed from without. Any text deconstructs itself the moment it attempts to fix meaning.

One could call Derrida’s work a metaphysics of absence as opposed to a metaphysics of presence, but it is the ways in which they intertwine that is of interest. And the effort metaphysics has expended on suppressing the absent – the gaps between ideas, the ghosts and specters that are called up within its thinking, the things that stand outside its purview in one era and why they are excluded. We are used to the Freudian concept that our words are not to be taken at face value – the unconscious, that exemplary sort of absence, is playing its part. Like a psychoanalyst of metaphysics, Derrida wants to know what is really being said.

If Western metaphysics is a search for fixed meanings, Derrida is not against this search. The search for the pure end term of religion – God – creates religion, the search for such things as Truth, consciousness and the self, generates philosophy. For Derrida, these searches are ‘tasks’ in the sense that we always already find ourselves – to use a Heideggerian term – ‘thrown’ into them. Part of our impulse is and will always be to seek an origin, or a culmination, or at least solid ground. At the moment we do so – given we can actually experience none of those things – we are performing a gesture, attempting to renounce the equivocal, expressing a hope, be it finding an origin of geometry or overcoming metaphysics.

Where Heidegger argued that we are reaching the end of metaphysics, Derrida argued that metaphysics – philosophy – always already works in the shadow of this death. It is a structural component of metaphysics to imagine its own completion, present and correct. Or, as Hegel put it in 1820:

Only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. When philosophy paints its grey in grey, one form of life has become old, and by means of grey it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known. The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.

Western metaphysics will always search for the ideal, and believe itself to be edging forward towards it. Perhaps one day presence will triumph. But as Derrida noted, “The end approaches, but the apocalypse is long lived.”